Whenever they kindle a fire for war, Allah extinguishes it.
And they strive to create disorder in the earth,
and Allah loves not those who create disorder” – The Quran.
THE West and the world of Islam sometimes resemble two different centuries banging through the night on parallel courses. In full raucous cultural panoply, they keep each other awake. They make each other nervous. At times, as now, they veer together and collide: up and down the processions, threats are ex-changed, pack animals and zealots bray, bales of ideological baggage spill into the road. Embassies get burned or bombed, hostages taken. Songs of revenge rise in the throat.
Are these collisions inevitable? The mutual misunderstandings of the West and the Islamic world have a rich patina of history. Jews, Christians and Muslims, all “People of the Book”, draw much of their faith from the same sources. Yet from the time of the Muslim conquests and the Crusades, West and Islam have confronted each other by turns and attitudes of incomprehension, greed, fanaticism, prurient interests, fear and loathing.
The world of Islam, more than often, has accused the United States (US) of leading the onslaught against the “harbours” of Islamic culture. However, the Americans have responded by asking with truculent innocence: “What did we ever do them?” If the question is disingenuous, the answers are complex.
The US never colonized Islamic countries, as, for example, Britain and France did. The US has no large Islamic minority and thus, unlike the Soviet Union, has no record of bitter internal relations with Muslims. Besides (as some Muslim leaders know), Communism was far more inimical to Islam than capitalism.
But in the past 50 years, the US has been a chief participant in a cultural encounter that is in some ways even more traumatic to the World of Islam than colonialism: the full onslaught of secular, materialist modernization of 21st century civilization sweeping into the timeless Muslim villages. The apparatus of Western progress, a machine overwhelmingly vigorous, profoundly tempting and yet decadent by all the disciples of the Prophet, has threatened Muslim identity.
Western science and technology have wounded the deep pride of Islam. The success of unvirtuous, the infidel unfavoured of Allah, is psychologically confusing. Seen through Muslim eyes, the emergency of the West as the temporary master of the world remains an anomaly in the natural unfolding of the course of history.
Muslims have recoiled from modernization in exact proportion to the force of its temptation for them. They have been attracted by secular materialism, have tried it in the guise of capitalism and Marxism, but they have often been disappointed by it and have associated it with colonial masters who introduced them to it. They found it dangerously, almost radioactively, corrupt.
Some Muslims, of course, insist that Islam and modernization are perfectly compatible. Many Islamic countries supply the oil that is, for now, the indispensable ingredient of modernization, and they have tried to use the staggering and sudden wealth to buy the machines of progress without the devils that often inhibit them. Some of the conservative Islamic leaders, like Saudi Arabians for example, pursue a selective strategy regarding the technological riches of the West: they want to modernize without the garish libertine free – for – all that Western secular individualism has promoted.
But for Muslims, the dilemma remains; if they are to develop economically, they must send their young to be educated in the West. And that inevitably means diluting their culture.
Progress means better medicine and other mitigations of life’s harshness, of course, but it also means that the young women returning from Paris or Paulo Alto in short skirts instead of chadors; it means 30 percent inflation, pollution, and open door to all the depressing lot of the junk culture; it means the young leaving the villages and becoming infested with all kinds of Hefnerian tastes and forbidden way of Islamic life.
It is sometimes difficult for a Westerner to understand that to a Muslim, the cultural dismantling of Islam, the governing apparatus of life and civilization, is a tragedy that amounts to a form of annihilation.
The sort of Muslim fundamentalism evident in some of the Islamic countries may confirm a remark by Franz Fanon, the philosopher of Third World uprisings, in his book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ when he writes: “the native response to imperial dominations is to fall back on what is authentic, what is resistant to modernization. The mosque becomes a symbolic safe haven”.
Generally, Islam is not inherently or inevitably anti-Western, despite the often bloody encounters. Muslims have historically occupied geographically vulnerable positions, which may account for their militant touchiness. But the religion has become the vehicle for certain anti-Western resentments and antipathies.
All too often the fault has been dumped on the doors of colonialism; that the colonists disrupted Muslim society, ousted the Shariah, replaced it with Common Law, and turned the conquered people technically into Kuffars (unbelievers). This could be one of the gists behind Muslims claiming for Kadhi’s Court in Tanzania today.
It is under this pretext that two issues have been central to religious speculation today, namely, Islamic expansion and Islamic revivalism.
Expansion is about the spread of religion and its scale of new conversions. Revivalism is about the rebirth of faith to those who are already converted. Expansion is a matter of geography and populations – in search of new world to conquer.
Revivalism is a matter of history and nostalgia – in search of ancient worlds to re-enact. The revival of Islam is often an angry process of rediscovered fundamentalism. It is this type of fundamentalism which culminated into attacks of pork butcheries in Dar es Salaam in 1993, and the like.
Of the three principal religious legacies - indigenous, Islamic and Christian, the most tolerant is the indigenous tradition. It is true that in Africa, for example, the continent did not have religious wars before Christianity and Islam came. Precisely, because these two latter faiths were universalistic and aspirations – that is seeking to convert the whole of humankind, they are therefore inherently competitive.
It is due to this that Christianity (Western culture) and Islam (Arabic culture) have often been in competition for the soul of the world. Rivalry has resulted in conflict.
More often, this competition has been under the banner of a liberating force against the clutches and culture of the West (Christianity). And in doing so, the Quran has been a great force often quoted, thus: “And why should you not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak are ill-treated, (and oppressed), “men, women and children; Our Lord Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors, and raise for us from Thee one who will protect and raise for us from Thee one who will help” [Quran 4.75].
Hence “O ye who believe, Endure, outdo all other in endurance, be ready, and observe your duty to Allah, in order that you may succeed” [Quran 3.20].
It is true that the post-colonial prosperity of oil-rich Arab countries has given Islam sources for missionary work in the world which are unprecedented in modern Islamic history. With all these, can Islam be culturally and economically competitive with the West in the rivalry for the soul of the World? I don’t think so. Why? Because Muslims have greedily and aggressively sought the material wonders of the West, yet are ambivalent in their souls. However, one can yet easily locate the dilemma: That, if Islam is ever to become an economic and political competitor of the West, it must embrace a progress that may for ever weaken its ethical and spiritual structures, just as other religions have been drained by the secularization of the Western World.
In this respect, Islam, whether it likes or not, has to agree to be integrated and grapple with the dictates of secularism, the European culture and civilization, for it cannot survive on inspirations of the past, otherwise it will naturally die. Nor are the desired old Islamic social moral values have any chance to regain their 14th century supremacy any more.